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Astronomer names minor planet after Vancouver Island First Nation

Last Updated May 27, 2018 at 4:40 am EDT

CENTRAL SAANICH, B.C. – When Tsawout First Nation Chief Harvey Underwood looks up at the stars, he knows his community has a place among them.

That’s because floating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is a newly discovered minor planet that bears his community’s name.

“Our name means, ‘houses on the hill.’ Now our planet is ‘houses in the universe,’ I guess,” said Underwood from his home on Vancouver Island.

“It’s mixed in there with all the stars.”

Astronomer David Balam presented a plaque to the First Nation marking the official naming of the asteroid Tsawout at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Victoria, B.C., last week.

Balam said he discovered the two-kilometre wide astronomical object in 2007.

But he said the official process for naming takes between five and 20 years, and involves intricate mapping of the minor planet’s orbit. It also requires approval from both the union and the Minor Planet Centre, a worldwide organization in charge of collecting and publishing observational data for minor planets.

Minor planets, or asteroids, are chunks of rock left over from the formation of the solar system, Balam said. Tsawout is one among millions orbiting in the asteroid belt.

Balam said he spends a lot of his time looking up through a telescope at the observatory on Little Saanich Mountain, documenting small planets.

“I’m trying to answer a scientific question. This isn’t, how old is the universe and where do we come from. It’s a bit more fundamental. It is: Is that thing going to hit the Earth?” Balam said.

Balam said Tsawout is the 49th minor planet he has named. Others bear the names of Canadian astronomers, institutions — including his alma mater, the University of Victoria — and people in his life.

“This is about the only feasible way I can see in the near future that we’re going to populate the solar system with Canadians, eh?” he said.

He chose the Tsawout because of a personal connection — his family homestead was on a nearby island and he says his family has links to both the Tsawout and Haida First Nations. He said he also respects the First Nation for the way it has been able to preserve its traditions.

“I’m directly related to many of these people out here, so I got interested in their history and traditions,” he said.

“If you look back at the history of these people, there’s been famine and floods and European invasion and near genocide. So they’ve gone through a lot and they have managed to resurrect and maintain their traditions and pass them on to their young people. I very much admire that,” he said.

Balam said he sees naming a minor planet as another way to preserve history.

“It’s very much like immortality,” he said. “This planet will have your name forever and for as long as the human race exists.”

Underwood said beyond the novelty of having a minor planet in his community’s name, it has sparked an interest in astronomy among some of its youth.

He said Balam has offered to take some of the young people up to the observatory, and has shared some images of the asteroid that bears the Tsawout name via Facebook.

“It looks neat, zooming around out there in the universe,” Underwood said.